IN MANY MINDS ‘SOHO’ conjures up sleazy night spots, strip joints, sex shops, and risqué nightlife. For me, Soho contains many memories of my childhood. And before you wonder about what kind of upbringing I had, let me emphasise that these recollections have nothing to do with the seamier side of this colourful district in London’s West End. If you are hoping for something more ‘exciting’, stop reading now to avoid disappointment.
My mother was an artist. Her preferred metier was sculpture. In the 1960s, she used to work in the sculpture workshops at the St Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road. She welded pieces of metal to create artworks. Her companions in the studio included now famous artists such as Philip King and Anthony Caro.
In addition to being a sculptor my mother was acknowledged by friends and family as being a good cook. She was a disciple of the food writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce French and Italian cuisines into British kitchens. Ms David’s recipes required ingredients and cuts of meat not readily available to British shoppers in the 1960s. However, St Martin’s was close to Soho, in particular Old Compton Street and Brewer Street, where the ‘exotic’ ingredients needed for Ms David’s recipes were easily accessible. These streets contained a variety of shops that catered to French southern European culinary needs.
We lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, an attractive but, in my opinion, rather dull place. As a youngster, I loved being taken into central London. My mother often took me to the West End. We used to take the ‘tube’ to Oxford Circus Station. Near there, we always entered Dickins and Jones department store. Why, I cannot say, because my mother rarely bought anything there. The ground floor of the shop was dedicated to perfume and other cosmetic sales. Once, one of the salespeople, called to me. Without prompting, she advised me never to use after shave lotions. I was far too young to have begun shaving, but I have followed her unsolicited advice ever since then. I have not yet been brave enough to experiment with these lotions and to discover why she advised against them.
After leaving the department store, we used to visit the Danish Centre in Conduit Street, where I would be treated to an open sandwich and a kransekage, a Danish confection containing marzipan. From there, we used to head for Soho.
Meat was always bought at Benoit Bulcke, a Belgian butcher shop on the corner of Old Compton Street and a smaller side street. According to my mother, only this place knew how to cut meat properly, and she was not someone to argue with. Their motto was “Meat to Please You, Pleased to Meet You”. They moved from Soho to northwest London some years ago.
Coffee was always purchased at the still extant Algerian Coffee Stores. The shop’s appearance remains unchanged since I was a child. My mother used to choose Mocha Mysore, a name which meant nothing to me as a child. Decades later, when I began visiting India, I got to visit Mysore and also Indian coffee plantations. One innovation at the Algerian Coffee Stores instituted long after my childhood, and well before the Covid-19 crisis, was the inclusion of a small counter where exquisitely made espresso coffee is served.
Other groceries were bought at Lina Stores, still in existence, and Camisa, another Italian grocery nearby. Almost every visit to Soho included a stop at Bar Italia. Founded in 1949, this coffee bar still exists. Entering it is like stepping straight from Soho into a typical bar in Italy. Much of its décor remains as I first remember it, but now the far wall of the café is lined with an enormous TV screen on which Italian football matches can be watched. Whenever we visited Bar Italia, my mother would point at a doorway close to it and tell me that it led to Jimmy’s restaurant. Founded in 1948, it was the first Greek restaurant to be opened in Soho. Although she always mentioned the place, we never ate there. However, close by in a parallel street there was an Italian restaurant, Otello, which my parents visited often, sometimes taking my sister and me.
One shop that no longer exists was on the short stretch of Old Compton Street between Moor Street and Charing Cross Road. It had trays of vegetables and salad greens on stalls on the pavement outside the front of the store. It was a French run greengrocer, whose name I cannot recall. One of the things my mother bought there was something that sounded to my young ears like ‘mush’ (rhyming with ‘slush’). I had no idea what it was or what it was used for, but I know that my mother prized it greatly. Many, many years later, I realised what she was buying was in fact ‘mache’, also known as ‘lambs lettuce’ or ‘corn salad’, and to botanists as Valerianella locusta. In the 1960s when my mother was buying mache in Soho, hardly anyone in the UK would have heard of it, let alone eaten it. Today, it is a common ingredient of packaged salads found in supermarkets. I had no idea that back in the 1960s, my mother had become a foodie trend-setter by serving us mache in our salads.
My mother died forty years ago, and Soho has changed since then, but much remains that she would have recognised. Whenever I sip coffee at Bar Italia, I raise my tiny cup of strong black coffee to her memory. Mache more than that, I cannot do!